Since its founding by John Churchill and Sir Neville Marriner in 1959, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields has been among the most-prominent chamber orchestras in the world. I was lucky enough to have begun collecting their recordings about the time Sir Neville started conducting them from the podium in the early 1960's, and I have followed their career through the years on L'Oiseau-Lyre, Argo, Decca, Philips, EMI, Collins, Chandos, DG, CORO, and now Sony. Although they seemed to lose a little of their recording presence during the early 2000's, their current Music Director since 2011, violinist Joshua Bell, has brought them back into the public eye. I certainly welcome any new recording by them.
The current disc features two of the most-popular works by the German Romantic composer
Max Bruch (1838–1920): his Scottish Fantasy and Violin Concerto No. 1. Record producers and conductors often pair these pieces on their discs, but seldom is the Scottish Fantasy announced so prominently. Indeed, in this case it is the only work mentioned on the cover of Bell's album. I didn't even know they included the Violin Concerto until I looked at the back of the jewel box.
Anyway, the first thing on the disc is Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, which he finished in 1880, dedicating it to the violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. The Fantasy is, of course, Bruch's survey of Scottish folk tunes, loosely tied together in four movements.
The Fantasy starts off rather solemnly with an introduction marked "Grave," which is slow and somber before giving way to the more familiar and frolicsome melodies that follow. The Adagio cantabile, for example, floats gently overheard, doing much favor and grace to the Scottish love song that inspired it. Then, the Scherzo has a charming flow that melds imperceptibly with the folk tune of the Andante that succeeds it. Yes, there is a good deal of sentimentality in the music, yet it's a delightful sentimentality no less. The work concludes with a finale that is the most overtly "Scottish" of the Fantasy's music.
Does Bell's performance compete with my favorite artist in this music, Jascha Heifetz on RCA? Not for me, not quite. Bell is a degree too relaxed and too careful with the score, whereas Heifetz seemed to throw himself into the music. Still, Bell's fans will doubtless appreciate his work, and there is no questioning his earnest sympathy for Bruch's tunes.
The coupling, as I said earlier, is the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, which Bruch revised in 1867 and which has become one of the staples of the violin repertoire ever since. It has an unusual first movement, a Vorspiel (or Prelude), leading directly to the second movement. This Vorspiel is like a slow march, with some ornamental flourishes along the way. The second-movement Adagio, a series of broadly sweeping themes, is beautifully melodious and forms the core of the work. Then comes the Finale, which begins quietly until the violin opens up with a vivacious theme in the form of a dance.
Again, Bell plays it safe with moderate tempos and smooth phrasing throughout. His violin tone is immaculate, and the orchestra, as always, is attentive and articulate. I enjoyed the Adagio best of all, with Bell giving it a wistful but never doleful air. With the Finale Bell again sounds just right, although I didn't think the music quite took flight. Thus, Bell delivers a reliable, measured, carefully constructed interpretation with little to fault and a good deal to commend.
For reasons unknown, the folks at Sony supply no timings for any of the tracks, neither on the back of the jewel box nor inside the booklet. No idea why.
Adam Abeshouse produced, engineered, edited, mixed, and mastered the disc, recording it at Air Studios, London, UK in September 2017. The first thing noticeable about the sound is that it's fairly resonant. Then, when the violin enters, the instrument appears well in front of the orchestra, while occasionally moving back toward it at will. I'm not sure why Mr. Abeshouse chose these qualities; perhaps with the resonance he wanted the smallish chamber orchestra to sound bigger than it was; perhaps by occasionally moving the soloist forward and back he wanted to emphasize the violin's part in the proceedings.
In regard to the resonance, I doubt that any recording studio would be this reverberant, but I've never been there so I don't know. Maybe the sound would be just right if listened to through ear-buds, in a car, or via inexpensive computer speakers; again, I don't know. But through my VMPS towers, the orchestral sound was often a bit too flat, too forward, too clouded, or too muffled for my taste, as well as a bit hard and bright in the upper registers. The violin, on the other hand, sounded mostly clear and vibrant, if sometimes, as I say, too close. In short, the recording produces an ever-changing sonic perspective, which listeners will either ignore or find distracting.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: